The Timeliness of Studying Argumentation

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Some of the terminology used in discussing argumentation is centuries old, but its applications are as timely as today’s headlines, as the title of this blog suggests. When we listen to presidential candidates, for example, we respond to the logic of what he or she says, we are moved—or not—by their appeal to our emotions, and we evaluate both the ideas and their effects on us in light of how ethical we perceive the candidates to be. We may not consciously analyze logos, ethos, and pathos, but these ancient concepts are behind our thinking.

We may not explicitly ask ourselves, “What claim was Trump making about Cruz in his speech?” or “What support did Obama offer for his confidence in the state of the union in his recent speech?” but when we try to become better at presenting a reasoned argument or analyzing someone else’s, it helps to know the terms claim and support.

In our everyday lives we tend to use the term argument to refer to a verbal fight between individuals. The more formal definition of argument, though, goes back to Aristotle’s concept of argument as all available means of persuasion that one can offer in support of a claim. A critic may argue that African Americans were slighted in the nominations for the 2015 Academy Awards, for example, and may offer as evidence the lack of nominations for Straight Outta Compton and for Michael B. Jordan.

The effectiveness of that argument depends on the audience and on the extent to which the critic and his audience share common ground—in this case, the extent to which they use the same criteria for judging the worth of actors and the films they appear in. This is the concept that often makes progress in negotiations possible because it is the shared common ground that two opposing parties can meet on in order to move toward a solution to a problem.

A formal study of argumentation also helps us to see the flaws in logic that appear all around us. We can all see the fallacy—and the humor—in a statement like this one made on Facebook: “If Donald Trump is elected, I’m leaving the country! I’m moving to Alaska!” Most people who have made it into the public spotlight, however, tend to make logical errors that are a bit more subtle. Attacking another person’s character may get attention, but it can detract from the issue of how well a person may do her job. Presenting only two options, “my way” or disaster, is a fallacy known as the either-or fallacy. Judging all of any group on the actions of one or a few has led to the tension that exists in many neighborhoods between law enforcement and the citizens they are supposed to protect.

If we are to act responsibly when we vote or when we take a stand on a public policy issue—or even when we enter into an argument with a friend, we have to think about the logic of what we are saying and hearing. The vocabulary itself is not what is important. What is important is being conscious of how a writer or speaker is trying to move us, for good or ill.

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About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.